Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fun in a Fiat



Back in the late eighties, my older sister drove a classic convertible Fiat Spider. It was cobalt blue with a black top. We did a lot of driving around in it when it wasn't in the shop earning its nickname "Fix It Again, Tony". Its frisky design invited capers of all kinds.
One New Year's Eve, we hopped in the Fiat drove to San Felipe, Mexico, a village on the less traveled eastern coast of the Baja Peninsula. We made it across the border in two hours, thanks to my sister's lead footed ways, and were immediately pulled over for speeding by two adorable cops just outside Tijuana. We had shared the road with many cars on the way down, and I watched their horrified expressions as they passed us by, obviously understanding the possible fate of two twenty-ish red heads in a pulled over convertible outside Tijuana in ways that we didn't. Our high school Spanish helped us flirt our way out of a ticket, and we were soon back on the highway. We drove in the dark across the desert for another three hours at break neck speed to get to San Felipe in time to ring in the new year in style.
We had heard about how great San Felipe was some of the guys from work and figured that it was so close that we had to try it. There was no internet yet, no Yelp review, no "Ten things I hate about San Felipe" site to reference. This was back when word of mouth really meant something.
The drive down the two lane highway was all cactus plants, with the occasional eyes of the local wildlife glowing in the dark on the shoulder, pulverized roadkill and the infrequent car coming the other way. It was very surreal and slightly unnerving to be that alone in the world so suddenly, speeding along under a blanket of stars across the quiet desert with Soul II Soul singing "Back to Reality" on the tape deck.
We pulled into San Felipe around eight and managed to book the last motel room in town. Despite the gorgeous views of the Sea of Cortez,  the place wasn't as thrilling as I'd expected, sort of a crappy little tourist spot right on the ocean. Having visited almost every town on the entire coast of Baja  on a family road trip in high school, San Felipe was not the holiday mecca we'd hoped for. We arrived at the same time as a horde of frat boys, who unloaded several cases of beer from their van and stood around spitting and staring. We immediately went into town in search of food and adventure and  found ourselves at the "happening"  bar, drawn in like moths by all the neon lights and loud American music. In her defense, my sister protested, but I insisted we give it a shot. New Year's Eve was meant to be festive, after all. The place was filled with sunburned tourists wearing a variety of stupid hats and t-shirts that said things like "Boob Man".  These perfectly nice, slightly crude people were looking for a Spring Break style experience, and we weren't. We were accosted at the bar by San Felipe Bob, a cross between Jeff Spicoli and John Denver, the toothy self proclaimed giant sombrero wearing Master of Ceremonies. He cornered us for what seemed an eternity and explained in great detail how he came to be known as San Felipe Bob, the unofficial mayor of the quaint little town of San Felipe. It was too loud to hear his one sided conversation, and after about twenty minutes,we fled, both having the distinct feeling that a wet t-shirt contest might break out at any moment. I also suspected that the place was crawling with Parrot Heads, our sworn enemies ( Jimmy Buffet bought our house when I was a kid, and he turned our hand built log playhouse with real glass windows and a mini bunk bed into a smoke house).
The Fiat had taken us into the Mexican Twilight Zone, and  we fled like William Shatner trying to get off that plane with the gremlin thing on the wing.  We ended up at a family restaurant down the street where there was dancing, traditional Mexican music,decent drinks and zero tourists, but that almost felt like we had crashed a wedding. They were perfectly nice, but we were tired and retreated to the hotel around ten. We would have slept until dawn if not for the frat boys down the hall who returned from seeing in the new year completely shithoused, and banged on our door every ten minutes loudly demanding blow jobs (no, I am not kidding) until four a.m. Thanks, fellas. Happy.New.Year.
We left at dawn and drove back to Los Angeles, silently acknowledging  the hundreds of road side graves that we had missed on the dark drive down, and more than a little disappointed with San Felipe and its people. My sister drove like a diaper clad love struck astronaut, fearlessly navigating her little blue rocket ship, passing on dangerous curves and crossing solid yellow lines to get around slow moving convoys of chicken trucks and flatbeds filled with families. We had to get back to Los Angeles and as far away from San Felipe Bob and the horny, hungover frat boys as possible. The drive in the little blue Fiat was the most thrilling and strangely reliable part of the whole excursion. It shed its flaky image for one glorious weekend.


A few months later, we were out driving around after breakfasting at Millie's, a local dive where the hipsters fed. We got stuck at a red light at the five way intersection where Sunset meets Hollywood,smack in front of the Vista Theater, which meant at least three solid minutes of waiting. Three minutes is an eternity at a red light-it feels like three hours- but we had nothing but time.  It was Sunday morning, the weather was perfect, the top was down, music was playing, life was good. After all,  we were in the Fiat. I was staring out the window, daydreaming. Then, I heard her voice, and I realized as soon as I heard it that she had been speaking for at least twenty seconds. I had been lost in thought and really not noticed it. I focused my eyes and realized,to my white girl horror, that I had been staring at a very large Chicana, sitting in the car next to us who had been staring right back and wanted to know "What the FUCK are you lookin at?!". She had two friends, too, and they all looked the same- possibly half Samoan, with strenuously feathered hair,deep crimson blush streaks-war paint, if you will-over pock marked cheeks and heavy peacock blue eyeshadow with so much black eyeliner that they resembled a gang of very large feral raccoons in plaid shirts who had suffered makeovers at the hands of an eager drag queen. They all started yelling at us and banging their fists on the windows of their thrashed metallic blue 1983 Honda Civic with badly dented doors. 
It could have been kind of Sharks and Jets, except that I was more like a minnow, paralyzed with fear and fairly certain that whatever happened next would involve having some part of my body being slammed in a car door repeatedly and most of my hair removed with a switchblade or simply pulled out by hand. They were terrifying. The light stayed red, and we there we sat, three feet from possible dismemberment and/or permanent baldness. Then, as if it couldn't get any weirder, my sister began to laugh. Not a nervous giggle, mind you, but a hearty full bodied laugh, a laugh that would make Ricky Ricardo proud. I was flabbergasted, as one can assume that if laughing at a camel will make it spit in your face, laughing at three agitated Cholas will probably make them kill  you. They were stunned for about three seconds and then the car erupted into mayhem. The one in the back began pushing on the passenger seat to get out of the car and ostensibly throw me around like an orangutan playing with her Samsonite.  My sister kept laughing right at them, as loud as she could. Just as the girl finally freed herself from the car and was coming around to change our lives forever, the light turned green. My sister floored it, and we screeched off down Sunset Boulevard past the Children's Hospital, past the Scientology Center, and home to our shabby but welcoming two bedroom apartment in the heart of Hollywood. I spent the entire ride looking back to see if they were following us, but she assured me that their car didn't have enough pick up to catch up to us. How she knew this, I will never know.
The Fiat finally became too expensive  to fix, and she let it go. She moved across town to go to UCLA and didn't need a car anymore. I moved in with a guy and bought a Ford Escort. It was time to grow up. I guess being young is really quite fun after all, but you really have to have a cute car.